How Stroad’s Cross was Written

I chose Stroad’s Cross to be my third experiment in independent publishing because I was unsure how good it really was. I had worked hard on it for a long time, but the last time it had been submitted, by my agent then, to two traditional publishers, it took two years for both of them to reject it. That was when I decided to try to publish for myself.

Internal evidence suggests that I started writing it in the late 1980s. I was going to write a haunted house story, but wanted to do it differently. I got myself some characters, and set up an abandoned house in the woods, similar to the real one that I had found many years ago. I was ten thousand words into it, but somehow my characters couldn’t find the house. I knew where it was, but unless I forced them to find it, they couldn’t. So I threw it out and started over.

The second time I was twenty thousand words into it, when my characters, having found the house for themselves without authorial intrusion, saw what terrible shape it was in, just like the one I had actually gone in to. The floor was rotten, there were water stains on the ceiling, and plaster had fallen from the walls. They decided, very sensibly, not to explore. So I threw it out and started over.

My characters had evolved, my setting for the house had changed, and the nature of the house had changed. But thirty thousand words into it, my characters, on finding and actually going into the house, and exploring it a bit, did what any sane people would do after some of the ghastly, ghostly, hauntingly frightening experiences they had. They left, rapidly, never to return. So I (sigh) threw it out, and started again.

By this time there was more than one house in the setting. By this time my characters had a motive, aside from exploration, to go in and check it out. I had set it in a new location, where it was easy to find. But forty thousand words into it … my characters got so involved in the process of renovation, restoration, fix-it-up, making it habitable, that whatever haunted it just didn’t have a chance. Nobody paid any attention. The story was going nowhere. I gave up.

But not really. I had an idea, which has proved to be most valuable to me when starting a new novel. After four tries, one hundred thousand words, I still didn’t know what the story was about. I had no idea what I wanted for an ending. I was driving around aimlessly, as it were, with nowhere to go, and no story to tell about my trip when I got back. So —

It took a while, a few days. I redesigned the village. I developed my characters. I gave them a powerful reason for wanting to develop the property, which they actually owned without having known it, and I asked myself — What did I want my ending to be about? How did I want this story to end. What happened that made a difference? Why was I telling this? The image came, and the ending I finally wrote is pretty much like that. And now I always make sure I know what the ending is about — it may change when I get there — before I start writing.

Okay. I knew where I was going to start. I knew how it was going to end. I had a great setting, great ideas for haunting, and I wrote it, about 175,000 words. I gave it to my agent at that time. It wouldn’t sell. We went to England for three years.

When we came back, I decided to rewrite it extensively, using a style which I have since learned is totally inappropriate for fiction, that is, as if it were not fiction, like all the articles I had written for computer magazines. Lots of detail. Lots of description of what I knew the place looked like, what I knew the characters did. It grew to 230,000 words. And I submitted it for the last time. Two years for rejection.

One of Diane’s co-workers, at what was then Glaxo Wellcome, had a daughter in high school, who had been given a summer assignment of finding someone who could mentor her on a possible job career. She wanted to be an editor. I had a book I really liked but which really needed massive editing, so I let her look at it.

She was not very knowledgable about how the real world works (she was only a junior) but her criticisms of the writing were intense, bloody, painful, extensive, and almost all of them completely right. I had never seen those problems, all the times I had read and reread and edited it. It was a good story, but it wasn’t written as story, as fiction. It was the wrong style.

Shall we say it was a humbling experience? Yes, let’s say that. It was a humbling experience. We finished our mentorship, she went on to eventually not be an editor after all, and I took another look at the text with fresh eyes.

I rewrote, condensed, revised, tightened, and cut. Instead of writing about what I knew about the setting, the events, the people (who were not just characters any more), I wrote about what they saw, what they felt, what they did, who they were and were becoming. I tightened it to about 130,000 words. And it was, this time, a good story.

But I still wasn’t comfortable with it, so I didn’t submit it. Besides, I could no longer get an agent, and it didn’t match the descriptions of the kinds of books the publishers wanted, those who would let me submit over the transom.

So, after Cat Tales, and Closet for a Dragon, I decided to publish this myself. One more draft (you can always give a story one more draft, just one more, or two more…), and I prepared it for CreateSpace. Besides, I needed more practice at book design. Darcy did the cover, which represents the evil in the village, and redrew my map for the back cover. It all turned out well.

I’ve sold a few copies. And I have fans who really like it.